Young voters may play a big role in the upcoming election — but will they turn out?

By: and - October 28, 2020 7:00 am

Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Bradley Gay, 25, is a second grade teacher assistant at a private school in Tallahassee. As a young voter, he sees his generation as a key demographic in shaping the future of Florida and national politics.

“I think the youth vote will have a lot to do with that in this election,” said Gay in a conversation with the Phoenix.

As the 2020 general election makes its way towards the finish line, many polls and news outlets are keeping their eye on young people to see how their votes may impact the upcoming election.

Bradley Gay, 25, believes the younger demographic of voters will play a key role in the  election. Photo provided by Bradley Gay.

For Gay, he sees a stronger turnout of younger voters than in years prior.

“We have access to so much information — literally, in the palm of our hands,” Gay said, referring to technology that gives people an easier way to politically engage. “There is absolutely more voter turnout among our young people.”

But, historically, young voters are harder to get to the polls.

Mobilizing young voters in Florida

Traditionally, young people under the age of 35 are less interested in politics and less likely to vote or are not registered to vote, according to NextGen America — a progressive political action committee founded by former Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer. 

“These young people are hard to find, expensive to mobilize, and have a reputation of not being particularly interested in politics. For those reasons, traditional political campaigns leave them out — but we have the expertise to find young people, bring them into the political process, and make them lifelong voters,” NextGen America said on its website. 

NextGen Florida has been focusing its outreach efforts to mobilize young voters at public universities across the state by offering free rides to early voting sites near campuses. 

The group offered college students rides at several universities this week, such as Florida State University, the University of Central Florida, the University of South Florida, and the University of West Florida. 

Other organizations are looking to encourage the younger population to register to vote and ensure students have access to political information. 

Matamron Bacon, 21, is a senior at St. Thomas University in Miami. He is a campus fellow with the Campus Election Engagement Project, a nonpartisan effort to engage college and university students in local and federal elections.

“My job is to engage my student population in the electoral process,” said Bacon. “Overall, it’s making sure students are registered to vote and are prepared to make an informed decision that best suits their interests.”

Bacon said that CEEP is also invested in encouraging students to continue voting further on down the line.

“At the end of the day, we’re going to be the constituency for the next 40 years,” he said.

According to a report by Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, “more than five million young people (ages 18-29) have already voted early or absentee in the 2020 elections.” That report shows Texas, Florida, and North Carolina as the top states with early votes cast by young voters. 

The data include youth votes cast 11 days before Election Day in 2020, compared to early votes cast by the youth in 2016, according to the report.

GOP support growing among Florida’s young voters

Meanwhile, young conservatives in Florida are also pushing to elect Republican candidates down the ballot in state legislative, congressional, and presidential elections.

Jessica Fernandez, chairwoman of the Florida Federation of Young Republicans, said in a phone interview with the Florida Phoenix that “I think you are seeing a lot of first-time voters in Florida” casting votes for Republicans on the ballot.

“We’ve led a historic effort in Florida to contact voters. Being a Republican now is the new punk rock. Young people want to see the facts for themselves,” she said.

Fernandez, 35, believes young Floridians are choosing the GOP party over Democrats because “the new Republican Party is one that is a lot more inclusive.”

As of Tuesday, here’s the breakdown for voting by mail thus far: Republican, 1,213,630; Democrats, 1,828,177; no political affiliation (NPA), 817,158; and “other,” 48,320. So Democrats outnumber Republicans on voting by mail.

Early in-person breakdown: Republican, 1,176,216; Democrats, 860,690; NPA, 464,681; other, 32,121. So Republicans outnumber early in-person voting.

National poll shows young voters motivated to vote this year

According to a poll from the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School, interest among young voters in participating in the election has hit record levels, with 63 percent of the respondents saying “they will definitely be voting.” 

The national poll surveyed people aged 18 to 29 and was released on Monday.  

Other key findings include 56 percent of likely voters in that age group favoring former vice president Joe Biden, “although the percentage who view him unfavorably remains unchanged” at 41 percent. 

And among likely voters casting a vote for a presidential candidate, Biden had an edge over President Trump — 63 percent say they would vote for Biden compared to 25 percent for Trump.

“We’ve seen this generation kind of unify,” Christina Pugliese, communications director of the Florida College Democrats, said in a phone conversation with the Phoenix.

“Across the aisle, we see our generation really pumped up and excited about this election,” she said.

Her organization supports Joe Biden for president and has endorsed several Democratic candidates in state legislative, congressional, and local elections.

“We’ve been working with a lot of candidates.  … We have people who’ve signed up as poll workers,” she said.

The role and utility of social media

Keegan Connolly, 25, works at a nonprofit research firm that looks into federal-level government corruption.

Keegan Connolly, 25, thinks that youth voter turnout is on the rise but is unsure if they’re as engaged in local elections. Photo provided by Keegan Connolly

While younger voters are less likely to vote overall, Connolly has noticed a larger interest in politics from young Florida voters overall. He attributes some of the increased interest and political participation to social media and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think it’s a testament to the strangeness of 2020 — I mean, we’re all kind of locked up in our homes, you can’t do things you normally do,” he said.  “There are fewer excuses, I think, for young people.”

Connolly thinks voting can be a powerful message in the diplomatic process and says that he sees voting as “a tool in a toolbox” — but Connolly also values the ability to engage with politics on social media.

“Being able to share things on an Instagram story or Twitter …. It’s another tool that we have. As young voters, you know how to use these things to get people out to vote,” Connolly said. “And because we don’t have much else going on, it’s bound to be a bit more successful.”

Connolly speculates that social media tends to pull focus to a more “macro level” of politics and he is unsure if younger voters are getting as involved in local elections as they are in the presidential election.

“I think it’s one of the great tragedies of American politics … how national politics — specifically, the presidency — dominate everything,” Connolly said. “There’s so little attention paid to local elections. It’s easier for worse politicians and worse officials to get elected, I think.”

But some young voters use social media to be more informed about their local politics.

Bryn Taylor, 23, is getting a PhD in Rehabilitation Science at the University of Florida. She uses social media not just to share her own political opinions, but to directly engage with local candidates and their social media teams.

Bryn Taylor, 23, is a PhD student at University of Florida who uses social media to get informed on local elections. Photo provided by Bryn Taylor.

“Pretty much every local candidate that has an Instagram, I will follow. Then, when they post things, I will comment with any question I have.” Taylor says. “And they usually comment back — them or whoever their social media outreach person is.”

Taylor used mail-in ballots before COVID-19. When considering local elections, she researches the candidates’ platforms and then refers to Reddit, a large discussion-based website with a wide range of topics. 

She wants to see how fellow Gainesville residents are reacting to the candidates. Alachua County is heavily Democratic.

“I vote in everything. I vote for every seat that is on my ballot, I research every candidate. Because I understand that while, of course, the federal government has a huge impact on our lives — in your day to day, local government is probably going to make a bigger difference.”

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.

Issac Morgan
Issac Morgan

Issac Morgan is a 2009 graduate of Florida A&M University's School of Journalism, and a proud native of Tallahassee. He has covered city council and community events at the Gadsden County Times, worked as a sports news assistant at the Tallahassee Democrat, a communications specialist for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and as a proofreader at the Florida Law Weekly.